Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has the notorious reputation of being hands-down the worst Star Trek movie of all time. It’s said to be so bad, in fact, that I don’t think I’ve ever watched it a second time after originally seeing it in the cinemas at the time of its release nearly 24 years ago. That has allowed my memories of how poor it is to fester, grow and multiply over the intervening years. That is until this week, when I had a strange moment of … I won’t say weakness, let’s just say unguarded curiosity to see whether it really was as bad as its reputation would have us believe.
The good news: it’s not the total unmitigated catastrophe that it had established itself in my memory as being. There are even some good moments in it. And it’s certainly no where near as awful and unlikeable as, say, the corresponding fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise turned out to be. In fact you might say that it would make a middling episode of the original TV series’ third and final season (which as true fans will know is indeed damning with faint praise.)
The bad news: it’s still unbelievably poor. It’s dull, witless, poorly written, weakly directed, tonally uneven with a disinterested cast and the worst effects of the series and indeed pretty much of any mainstream science fiction film of the late eighties. It justifiably has a total lock on the title of ‘worst Star Trek movie’ and always will.
It’s tempting and very easy to lay the blame entirely at the door of the film’s star, William Shatner, since he was also the director and contributed to the writing of the film as well. When you have your name so conspicuously all over the credits it’s hard to dodge the bullets when the result is a turkey. But in this case it seems the reasons for the film’s huge problems lie much deeper than just one man’s ego-trip and that a whole number of production problems are equally to blame; in fact you might say that the only real mistake Shatner made was allowing hubris to talk him into exercising his contractual right to direct the film given the circumstances in which it was made that continually undermined him.
First and foremost the problem is the script, and that’s because the pre-production of the film coincided with the 1988 Writer’s Guild of America strike that left them insufficient time to develop the screenplay before the already severely trimmed shooting schedule. That explains why the film takes a few disconnected high-level concepts from the Star Trek office ‘unused ideas’ pile – ‘Enterprise travel to the centre of the universe to meet God’; ‘Tattooine-like planet with a Mos Eisley spaceport cantina’; ‘Spock has a brother who is an emotional Vulcan!’ – throws them all into a pot with leftovers from the preceding films (the Klingons, now established as a staple of the movie) and then utterly fails to develop them into anything beyond the headline, let alone connect them into a single plot.
With the God premise at the centre of the story, Shatner expected to be making a deep and meaningful movie about profound philosophical concepts; but the studio executives at Paramount decreed that this was to be a fun, lighthearted movie like its box office success forebear, so the writers had to jam gags and in-jokes into every crevice to lighten things up. Most of them fall flat, some are downright embarrassing, and all of them jar tonally when lined up alongside the darker aspects of the underlying story.
Then there’s the effects, which are just plain awful – the sort of thing you’d expect from a 1970s TV movie before the success of Star Wars changed the game. Again, this isn’t really Shatner’s fault: the producers baulked at continuing to pay the rates of Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic FX house that had worked on the preceding three films and found a much cheaper alternative. And you can see every dollar saved in the costs right there not on the screen, missing in action. The only bit of any quality are those using established franchise furniture, so the Enterprise, the Klingon Bird of Prey and the Starfleet space station, mainly because there was a lot of reuse of existing ILM footage. Everything else – especially in the climactic confrontation with ‘God’ – is terrible, clearly model miniature work of the most basic kind. In fact it got so bad that when they came to film the scripted climax of the film – a sequence that would have seen Kirk pursued by rock-like giants – the FX were so plainly unusable that they had to be cut entirely, which explains why the film just sort of peters out in a general confusion the way it does.
It seems no one was happy with the making of the film, and that shows with the cast who for the first time look as through they are checking to see how long they’re contractually obliged to be there. Part of the trouble is that the script (such as it is) still treats them like the youthful bunch from the 1960s and calls upon them to do action work that it plainly beyond them – although Shatner, to his credit, tries gamely and comes off better than he’s given credit for. Leonard Nimoy on the other hand is painfully stiff and immobile, while DeForest Kelley is disturbingly thin and gaunt (although he does get pretty much all the best lines in the film) and George Takei seems to have a permanent head cold. James Doohan seems to have completely lost what was already a very tenuous hold on the Scottish accent, while Nichelle Nichols might still be impressively well preserved but even so, seeing her have to do a backlit naked fan dance scene as a decoy ruse is like watching your grandma make out with a school-age toyboy. It makes the 2013 film’s gratuitous sequence with an undressed Carole Marcus look the model of good taste by comparison.
Considering how reviled the character of Sybok is in the film (even Gene Roddenberry essentially disowned him by pointedly dismissing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as non-canonical) it’s easy to overlook how much hard work Laurence Luckinbill is doing in the past – he’s easily the best actor in the film, putting in a committed performance and actually looking like he believes in what he’s doing, which in the circumstances is some feat. And at least he has a role to play, as opposed to David Warner who is little more than a glorified extra forgotten about almost the minute he appears (clearly the producers felt some shame about this, promptly casting him in the next film in the significantly meatier role of Klingon supreme leader Chancellor Gorkon).
So how much of this debacle can we lay at the feet of star/director/co-writer Shatner? Well, a stronger director like Nicholas Meyer might have been able to put the brakes on and force a rethink. At the very least, a more experienced hand might have been able to make the film feel less tonally all over the place and impose a sense of style to this rather flat, TV movie effort. Some of the problems (misframing, marks on the lens, takes where there are clear problems with the actors’ movements where they have to take a second bite) might have been avoided, although that’s also just as likely to be down to the severely trimmed shooting time available.
But a basic example of where the whole thing looks amateurish is in a set-piece scene in a non-functioning Enterprise lift shaft which sees Spock come to the rescue using jet boots. Because of the way the scene is lit and shot, it’s painfully apparent that the actor is actually being supported by a fixed beam coming out of the wall behind him; the shadow it casts across the wall is painfully obvious. A better director would have spotted that and changed the set-up accordingly but Shatner doesn’t and no one else has the time to get it right either, so in it goes into the final cut, just one more embarrassment in a film already laden with them.
Despite that, the film has more to commend it than I gave it credit for in my dead-set-against memories, with some nice warm moments among the lead trio of regulars which includes McCoy getting all the best lines; despite myself I even laughed at the ‘Not in front of the Klingons’ near the end of the movie. Look back at the original series and you’ll find plenty worse episodes to cringe at, and it’s more tolerable than a lot of dreck that we’re getting at the movies these days like Battleship or, yes, A Good Day to Die Hard. And at least the whole thing is over fairly quickly at just 107 minutes.
On the disc: yes, I actually have this on Blu-ray, as part of a box-set of the original films in high definition. It looks fairly good but the colours aren’t as vibrant as I’d have expected and it’s also rather dark, giving it a rather grimly realistic feel for the most part which then clashes with the bright whites of the bridge set of the purples of other scenes, meaning that the inconsistency of the film extends even into its art direction cinematography and colour palette. The Blu-ray delivers these faithfully if unenthusiastically meaning it’s a decent but never particularly impressive presentation. The high-def looks nice in the desert world scenes and in the Yosemite location filming, but takes its tolls on the already lamentable effects by making them look even worse than they did in standard definition. It’s hard to criticise the Blu-ray but you get the feeling that, rather like everyone else involved, they just wanted to get their heads down, get through it and put it behind them and out of their minds as quickly as possible and never look back.
Having reviewed the film with fresh eyes, I’m now very amendable to the idea of not seeing it again for another 24 years. Which is still better than, say, Die Hard 5 which I actively want to purge from my mind and never see again for the rest of my days; just to provide some context.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is out on DVD and Blu-ray, both individually and in boxsets, and in various different editions.